By Lyle Kittle
LIMA -- It was the kind of night when even ducks may have sought shelter.
But football fans stuck it out.
St. Henry (13-1) advanced to a showdown with Amanda-Clearcreek in the Division V state championship game by knocking off previously unbeaten Patrick Henry, 13-0, at Bath Stadium. The weather, which consisted of a driving rain and a 20-plus mile per hour wind, combined with a muddy field to create what was a hostile environment for just about everyone. Patrick Henry finishes its season at 13-1.
"The weather wasn't great, but that's northern Ohio weather in December or late November," Redskins' coach Jeff Starkey said. "We wanted to play as mistake-free football as we could. We knew we'd have a few three-and-outs, but we were prepared to punt."
"First of all, we know that both teams had to play in the same conditions, and I give a lot of credit to St. Henry for adapting as well as they did," said Patriots' coach Bill Inselmann. "They beat us under those field conditions. It's a shame, in my opinion, that a game of this magnitude has to be played on natural grass. It took a lot away from what both teams could have done. It was hard for us to showcase our offense tonight, and it was more the mud than anything else." Amanda-Clearcreek beat Smithville, 22-6, to advance to the title game. The Aces and the Redskins met in the title game in 1999, St. Henry's last playoff appearance, with AC winning.
One unit, though, seemed to do its best work as things got worse.
St. Henry's defensive unit forced a pair of fumbles, recovering one, batted down two passes and intercepted three.
It appeared the passing-oriented Patriots were adapting to the poor conditions by running the ball. Junior Josh Strub was successful in moving the ball until an illegal procedure call and a loss on second down set up a third-and-long. Patriot quarterback Zack George, the Northwest District's Offensive Player of the Year in Division V, went to the air, looking for his favorite target, Marc Krauss. Redskins' cornerback Jared Stammen got position on Krauss and came away with the first interception. Stammen's 25-yard return gave St. Henry excellent field position on the Patrick Henry 35-yard line.
Nate Stahl's only pass completion of the game, a 10-yarder to Brady Schmitz, combined with some hard-nosed running by Jon Hemmelgarn got the ball inside the 15-yard line. Four plays later, the Redskins' offensive line opened a hole for Hemmelgarn, and the senior tailback fought his way into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown run with 1:12 left in the first quarter. Jon Clune's extra point gave St. Henry a 7-0 lead. Hemmelgarn carried the ball 26 times for 164 yards, more yards than the Patriots' total output.
"Once we got the first score, we played it a little closer to the vest," Starkey said.
Patrick Henry was within a yard of a first down on its next possession when St. Henry's defensive line flushed George from the pocket, with Toby Boeckman stripping the ball loose and Andy Puthoff recovering the fumble.
This time the Redskins couldn't move the ball and Hemmelgarn was dropped in the backfield by Patriot linebacker Isaac Arthur to give the ball back to Patrick Henry.
The Patriots didn't have the chance to enjoy having the wind at their backs for the first time, as Ryan Hartke intercepted George on first down
Patrick Henry's defense forced Stahl to punt into the wind, something that neither team did with any success due to the weather. Stahl's windblown punt covered 12 yards and gave the Patriots the ball on their own 32-yard line.
Strub ran the ball for 18 yards to midfield, and carried the ball three more times for another first down. Behind Strub and two pass completions, the Patriots marched to a first-and-goal at St. Henry's five-yard line. Ben Botjer carried the ball to the three-yard line and George's third-down pass, intended for Krauss, was broken up by sophomore defensive back Josh Werling.
On fourth-and-goal at the three, the Patriots decided to go to Krauss on the left side, away from Werling. This pass never got to the line of scrimmage, as 6-7 defensive end Toby Boeckman batted the ball down, ending Patrick Henry's biggest threat.
"That was a huge play, there's no doubt about that," Starkey said of Boeckman's knockdown. "Toby's done that all year. He probably leads the team in pass breakups."
"Absolutely, the height they have on the defensive line was a factor," Inselmann said. "Their defensive backs were the best we've seen this year."
That brought about the second biggest play -- or call -- of the game. With the choice for the second half, Starkey decided to take field position, making certain the Patriots were going into the wind in the fourth quarter.
Patrick Henry, knowing it had to make use of the 12 minutes it had with the wind at its back, immediately went to the air. Schmitz, who excels at man-to-man pass coverage, got the position and intercepted George for the third time.
St. Henry's defensive unit contained Patrick Henry throughout the period and the Redskin offense ran enough time off the clock when it was on the field to take the wind advantage away from the Patriots.
"When we were going against the wind, we just wanted to move the chains as much as possible," Starkey said. "If we had to punt, then we had to punt. We wanted to take as much time as possible."
The Redskins stopped Strub two yards short of a first down on the St. Henry 18-yard line with 25 seconds left in the quarter, meaning the Patriots would go against the wind the rest of the way.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Hemmelgarn broke loose and went 54 yards before Krauss caught him from behind and stripped the ball loose, falling on it himself to regain possession for the Patriots.
"Jon always gets caught from behind," Starkey said. "He's a fullback in a tailback's body. He runs like a fullback, and after the fumble, he knew he was going to get the ball again."
The wind was indeed working against the Patriots, as evidenced by punts of 23 and 17 yards in the fourth quarter. The 17-yard punt gave the Redskins the ball at the Patriots' 36-yard line.
On fourth-and-one from the 27, Hemmelgarn got a big push from the offensive line and covered the distance to the goal line with 4:13 left in the game to give the Redskins a 13-0 lead.
Knowing that the Patriots had absolutely no other option but to pass into the wind to score as quickly as possible, the Redskins' defensive line turned it loose on the pass rush. Even though George connected with Botjer for a first down, he was flushed from the pocket on five plays, throwing four incompletions, and slipping to the ground on the other play. The last incompletion sailed in the Redskins' bench and gave the ball back to Stahl and company on the Patriot 17-yard line with 2:28 left.
With Patrick Henry down to one timeout, the Redskins wore down the clock on each play, until a five-yard run on fourth down by Andy Puthoff gave St. Henry a first down on the Patrick Henry five-yard line, where Stahl took a knee to finish off the game.
"They're a very good team," Inselmann said of the Redskins. "They beat us, and they deserve to go on."
St. Henry goes to Paul Brown Tiger Stadium in Massillon to meet Amanda-Clearcreek (14-0) for the Division V state title.